Bell Atlantic Corp. yesterday announced plans to offer Internet access to businesses and consumers throughout its region.
The company said it will begin offering business connections to the worldwide computer network in May in Washington, D.C. The Baltimore market will follow in June.
Bell Atlantic will start providing dial-up access for homes and businesses in both cities in July, the company said. By November, Bell Atlantic will offer Internet access in all its major markets.
The Internet access market is seen as an important new revenue source for telecommunications companies because of the astonishing growth of the network. Morgan Stanley & Co. recently estimated that the number of Internet users in the United States tripled from 2 million in 1994 to 6 million in 1995 and that it will reach 67 million in 2000.
Bell Atlantic said residential customers will be able to gain unlimited access to a full range of Internet services for about $19.95 a month -- a price that essentially matches the offering announced by AT&T last month. The company also will offer a plan for casual Internet users at $4.95 for five hours of access and $1.95 a month for each additional hour.
"It's our goal to make using the Internet as easy as using the telephone," said Stuart Johnson, Bell Atlantic's group president for large business and information services.
Until recently, Internet access was a fledgling industry shared by a multitude of relatively small providers such as ClarkNet in Ellicott City and CharmNet in Baltimore. But the entry of the large companies raises questions about the small providers' long-term viability.
Gregg Freishtat, president of Planet Communications in Pikesville, said small Internet access providers who don't provide enhanced services are likely to see their market disappear.
Bell Atlantic is an especially formidable competitor because it has advantages no other carrier can match. Unlike other providers, Bell Atlantic already has a relationship with virtually every business or residential customer in its six-state region. And it does not depend on a competitor's network for the final connection to the customer.
Company executives said yesterday that Bell Atlantic's ability to package discounted Internet access with other services would let it "differentiate" itself from its rivals. They cited a second phone line or a high-speed digital connection as services that it could package with Internet access.
But any such packaging of services could run into objections because Bell Atlantic is required under the new Telecommunications Act to offer those service at wholesale to ,, resellers such as AT&T and MCI. Any attempt by Bell Atlantic to package Internet access with services before its rivals can do so is likely to set off a regulatory brouhaha.
Bell Atlantic will be vulnerable to such a challenge because it needs the approval of the Maryland Public Service Commission and other state regulators to lower its prices on ISDN, which allows Internet connections and other data transmissions at four or five times the rate of the fastest modems.
Bell Atlantic said that its Internet services would include Netscape Communications' Navigator software, the leading World Wide Web browser program. The phone company also announced plans to offer a customized version of the Microsoft Network.
Bell Atlantic said Internet services customers will be be served by a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week "help" desk.
But Internet professionals said Bell Atlantic faces a challenge in matching the service level of smaller providers.
"There's going to be a massive problem with the customer support and the ability to hold the hand of the neophyte consumer," Mr. Freishtat said.
Pub Date: 4/11/96